I WOULD like to elaborate further on the scourge of corruption, especially in developing countries. I am often of the opinion that as the income levels of both government officials and normal citizens rise, and their livelihoods have improved correspondingly, their determination to root out corruption would similarly be strengthened. But, realistically, how feasible this theory could be borne out in developing countries remains to be seen.
As I commented before, both the software and the hardware infrastructure in many developing countries are still wanting. Added to this the often life-and-death political and other social struggles prevalent in these societies, and you are confronted with livelihoods that are at best unstable and lives that are endangered. Of course, even in such adverse environments, there are still those who are commendable in their dedication to the call of duty, willing to serve selflessly without much reward. But these good Samaritans, worthy of being saluted, remain in the decidedly minority lot.
In the vast majority of cases in developing countries, what comes first and foremost to many officials and their businessmen friends is undoubtedly self-interest and self-preservation. Those of them who were privileged to have seen the outside world, especially the relatively stable and positive situations in developed societies, almost inevitably float the idea of eventually migrating themselves or at least their families over there, so as to be rid of an unstable environment. But also, as mentioned in my previous column, in order to migrate without too much hassle and without the need to start “all over again” in the new homeland, the precondition is undoubtedly the abundant availability of money.
Therefore, the incentive is high for these officials to abuse the often unchecked, albeit limited, powers that are within their grasp, and for the associated businessmen to misuse the vast networks that they cultivated to collude with each other. Highly inflated public projects offered without proper tender to suck out public money, or granting of permits for monopolistic business practices to extract high rents, become the order of the day.
This is a typical chicken-and-egg story. For as long as these developing societies remain unable to make the leap into relatively stable and developed ones, corrupt practices will remain difficult to stamp out. But without eradicating corruption, it would also be almost impossible for these societies to make such leaps. The self-defeating cycle keeps on churning.
At times, therefore, even the kindred spirit in me that wishes for a cleaner society feels exasperated. I used to think that regime change was the key. But a few years ago, I was introduced to a book called It Is Our Turn to Eat, which was supposed to be based on true accounts in an African country, whereby after a corrupt former regime was toppled, a new supposedly democratic government was installed. Amidst the euphoria that accompanied the democratization, the main protagonist in the book quickly learned to his surprise and dismay that elements in the new regime did not hesitate to help themselves to the largesse associated with their newly acquired public powers. And looking at many examples in the region and beyond, even supposedly democratized nations are still not immune to illicit money changing hands.
So, nowadays I have accordingly revised my thinking on corruption more realistically. I learn to stop loudly but futilely condemning and trying to arouse the public to rise up against corruption, as that would only land me in trouble (just like the protagonist in the book who was hunted down by the new powers-that-be). Many of the intended members of the public would not only not thank you, but would actually wrong you for disturbing their normal course of life. This is because at the same time that senior officials and major businessmen are engorging themselves, many normal citizens would still have to pay bribes to just get on with their ordinary lives, and your loud calls would only disrupt these “transactions” which are crucial to them.
Instead, what I often do nowadays is to accept with an “open” (though secretly still heavy) heart that corruption is almost impossible to get rid of in developing countries. I then proceed to publicly “guide” how officials and their businessmen friends could find even more “opportunities” to engage in corrupt practices. How does this work? Well, for example, I have noticed that in many advanced countries, railings are installed along the pedestrian walks, separating the latter from the roads. This serves both to speed up traffic (as pedestrians are then forced to use proper crossings and cars would not have to constantly stop or slow down to accommodate jaywalking pedestrians) and more importantly to reduce traffic casualties. Such railings, alas, are often not installed along the bustling streets of developing countries, where jaywalking is considered normal.
So, I would boldly suggest, since officials and businessmen are colluding anyway, they might as well find more “constructive” and publicly beneficial projects to do, such as to install railings along the streets in their capitals, even at inflated prices to engorge themselves.
This is admittedly a deplorable and undesirable call, but even if just a few stretches of railing could be built from the crumbs left over after the official lootings, it would still be able to save a few precious lives. And such is the sad state of corruption in many a developing society.